Si clauses in French are something that, when explained, appear to be a lot more complicated than they really are. As with many concepts related to language learning, there are just some things that can be understood easily by the brain, but come with hard-to-understand explanations.
Because of this, we’re going to try to put how to use si clauses into the simplest of words. There are a lot of difficult terms that come along with explaining these, so we’re going to try to avoid them as much as possible.
The best translation for the term si clause is “if/then constructions”. Si is the French word for “if” and unfortunately there isn’t a good translation for “then” (at least not in this situation).
“If/then constructions” are labeled as such because one thing has to happen in order for another thing to happen. There is a condition attached to the result that, if met, will allow the result to occur. It’s exactly this sort of explanation that makes explaining si clauses so much harder than just using them correctly.
We call these types of sentences if/then construction because in English the first part contains the word “if” where as the second part contains the word “then”. However in many cases the word “then” is optional. We’ve already established that when it comes to these sort of sentences there is no equivalent for the word “then” in French. In situations where the word “then” is omitted you can often reverse the sentence and keep the same meaning.
French Si Clause Number 1
This first si clause is probably the easiest to understand. The first half involves either the present or passé compose, and the second part involves either the present, future, or imperative.
Because this first type of si clause can be used with a variety of tenses, there are also a few different nuances that come with it. The great thing about this first “if/then construction” is that it lines up fairly closely to how we use them in English. Because of this, it shouldn’t be too difficult for most English speakers to grasp.
This first construction is used when the condition being discussed is likely to happen.
Le matin, s’il fait beau, je vais au travail à pied – In the morning, if it’s nice out, I walk to work
Il sera fâché si tu ne finis pas tes devoirs – He will be mad if you don’t finish your homework
Si tu as faim, va chercher de quoi manger – If you are hungry, then go find something to eat
Si tu manges ton diner, tu auras du dessert – If you eat your dinner, then you’ll get dessert
As we’ve stated, you can reverse these sentences without losing the meaning.
Je vais au travail à pied le matin s’il fait beau – I walk to work in the morning if it’s nice out
Si tu ne finis pas tes devoirs il sera fâché – If you don’t finish your homework he will be mad
Va chercher de quoi manger si tu as faim – Go find something to eat if you are hungry
Tu auras du dessert si tu manges ton dîner – You will get dessert if you eat your diner
French Si clause Number 2
The second type of si clause is first constructed with the imperfect and then with the conditional. If these terms don’t mean anything to you then just think of this clause in this way.
If something were to happen then something else would happen.
This is how sentences in this type of si clause are constructed. In my opinion, this is only slightly more difficult than the previous one. Despite this, with just a little bit of practice there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to master it quickly. This type of construction would be used in circumstances that are not likely to happen.
S’il faisait chaud, on irait à la plage – If it were hot out, we would go to the pool
Si j’avais beaucoup d’argent, j’achèterais un avion – If I had a lot of money, then I would buy a plane
Si je n’avais pas de travail, je deviendrais fou – If I didn’t have a job, then I would go crazy
S’il ne dormait pas 8 heures cette nuit, il serait crevé – If he didn’t sleep 8 hours last night, he would be exhausted
Let’s now reverse these sentences and see what we get.
On irait à la plage s’il faisait chaud – We would go to the beach if it was hot out
J’achèterais un avion si j’avais beaucoup d’argent – I would buy a plane if I had a lot of money
Je deviendrais fou si je n’avais pas de travail – I would go crazy if I didn’t have a job
Il serait crevé s’il ne dormait pas 8 heures cette nuit – He would be exhausted if he didn’t sleep 8 hours last night
Si Clause Number Three
This final type of si clause first uses the past perfect and then the conditional perfect. You would use this when the situation that you were talking about would never happen.
Like in our second example if this is hard to understand then you should think of it like this,
If something had happened then something else would have happened.
We say that this is for something that would never happen because the first thing didn’t happen so therefore the second thing couldn’t have happened.
Si je n’avais pas dormi huit heures, j’aurais été fatigué – If I had not slept for eight hours, I would have been tired
S’il avait oublié ses clefs, il n’aurait pas pu ouvrir la porte – If he had forgotten his keys, he wouldn’t have been able to open the door
S’il n’était pas parti à 7h00, il aurait été en retard – If he hadn’t left at 7 o’clock, he would have been late
Si elle avait giflé son patron, elle aurait été virée – If she had slapped her boss, she would have been fired
Let’s reverse these last few examples.
J’aurais été fatigué si je n’avais pas dormi huit heures – I would have been tired if I had not slept for eight hours
Il n’aurait pas pu ouvrir la porte s’il avait oublié ses clefs – He would not have been able to open the door if he had forgotten his keys
Il aurait été en retard s’il n’était pas parti à 7h00 – He would have been late if he hadn’t left at 7 o’clock
Elle aurait été virée si elle avait giflé son patron – She would have been fired if she had slapped her boss
Si clauses are really something that should be practiced and not necessarily learned through grammar. Sometimes it pays to internalize the way something is used through repetition because the official rules can make things seem much harder than they really are. This isn’t always the case but it is when it comes to si clauses. For more French grammar explanations head on over to the French grammar page.